Nineteen sixty-seven: the Summer of Love. Thousands of hippies made the pilgrimage to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, wearing flowers in their hair as Scott McKenzie said they should. The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Jimi Hendrix unleashed Are You Experienced and set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival after playing a stunning rendition of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone".
As for Dylan, he was nowhere to be seen, holed up in the Catskills in upstate New York, in the basement of a house called Big Pink. With him were Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, members of the Hawks, the band that had toured with Dylan in 1965 and 1966, and which, as The Band, would tour with him again in 1974. They spent the summer of 1967 playing and recording songs for their own amusement, and something more than amusement. The songs were not for general release, but they leaked out, making their way on to bootlegs and cover versions, and 24 of them were officially released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. Greil Marcus wrote the sleeve notes.
Two decades after that, in Invisible Republic (1997), Marcus showed how the songs on the basement tapes belonged to the tradition of American folk music, a tradition stretching back to the 17th century. "For 30 years people have listened to the basement tapes as palavers with a community of ghosts . . . As it happens, these ghosts were not abstractions. As native sons and daughters, they were a community. And they were once gathered together in a single place: on the Anthology of American Folk Music, a work produced by a 29-year-old man of no fixed address named Harry Smith."
Smith's Anthology, released in 1952, was a compilation of 84 songs recorded in the late 1920s and late 1930s, the work of musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Dock Boggs. It revealed a territory - which Marcus calls "the old, weird America"- that is also mapped by The Basement Tapes. Invisible Republic is the key to that map, and it is a revelation. It would be wrong to say the book made sense of the songs on The Basement Tapes; but it transforms the way you listen to them, seems to let you in on their secrets without giving anything away.
Bob Dylan had dropped out of sight after a motorcycle crash in 1966. Some people even thought he was dead. In the sum- mer of 1965, he couldn't have been more visible. "Like a Rolling Stone" entered the charts on 24 July: at more than six minutes long, it took up both sides of a 45rpm single. On 25 July, Dylan was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival for playing with a band and an electric guitar. The crowds remained hostile across the United States and in Britain. In Manchester on 17 May 1966, someone called out: "Judas!" "I don't believe you," Dylan replied. "You're a liar!" Then he turned to the band: "Play fucking loud." The last gig of the tour was at the Albert Hall in London on 27 May. "Like a Rolling Stone" was always the last song of the set. The performance at the Albert Hall that night was "the best I ever heard in my life", Bob Johnston, Dylan's producer, told Marcus. "Because he was angry, they were screaming at him - he said, Fuck those people, let's play this thing."
In Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the crossroads, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of its being recorded (in New York, 16 June 1965), Marcus considers the song in every context imaginable: musical, cultural, political, personal. He writes about the songs that surroun-ded it, on Highway 61 Revisited and in the Billboard charts; about the songs that preceded it, such as Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail", the Drifters' "Money Honey" and Muddy Waters's "Rollin' Stone"; and about the songs that followed, from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones to the Pet Shop Boys' version of the Village People's "Go West".
He also writes about the men who performed it: for example, Michael Bloomfield, one of the most talented guitarists of his generation - "If I could be anything in the world," one of Marcus's friends said to him in 1968, "it would be to be Michael Bloomfield's notes." But something went wrong: "as Bloomfield found his sound he couldn't keep it". He carried on making records, "but fewer were listening with each release, and there was less and less reason to". He died of a drug overdose in 1981, at the age of 36. "Without his presence in 'Like a Rolling Stone'," writes Marcus, "his name might be forgotten today."
As the contexts accumulate and the stories unfurl from around the song, it is impossible to resist Marcus's contention that "Like a Rolling Stone" not only represented but actually created a moment of unique emancipatory potential: "An old world was facing a dare it wasn't ready for; as the song traced its long arc across the radio, a world that was taking shape seemed altogether in flux." It's more than the tale of a spoilt rich girl who has fallen on hard times; it's a challenge to the whole of society to do away with itself and start again, a "storm that clears the ground of the familiar and reveals a thousand roads".
The trouble comes when you get to the end of this marvellous, exhilarating book, put it down, and listen to the song again. Because "Like a Rolling Stone", great though it is, struggles to carry the burden of significance Marcus lays upon it. It does not merit such relentless attention from a book as good as this. What's more, it doesn't even want it.
While "Like a Rolling Stone" is in many ways a savage song, it saves itself from brutality because the voice is not only taunting, but yearning, too. The singer pretends to speak from the point of view of a rolling stone, asking the woman how it feels to be one of us now, but he isn't one of them: quite the reverse. When he asks how it feels to be "a complete unknown", you get the impression that he'd really like to know. When he sings, "You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal", there is real envy in his voice - or, rather, he sounds as if he is caught up in a fantasy of what invisibility might feel like. In the basement of Big Pink, he found a way to explore it.
Thomas Jones is an editor at the London Review of Books